The new pandemic-induced pet food economy

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Sylvain CharleboisAccording to a recent report by Narrative Research, 18 per cent of Canadians say they got a new pet since the start of the pandemic.

That means more than 6.8 million pets were adopted since March. That can be added to the more than 16 million cats and dogs Canadians had in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

That’s a lot of domestic animals. And feeding domestic animals can cost $20 to $60 a month, which can add up.

More than 38 per cent of generation Z members have adopted a pet since March, according to the report. These adoptions were likely due to boredom, wanting companionship and because people have been forced to spend more time at home.

So having a new pet makes sense. And the odds are very high these young people will adopt more animals in the future.

As a result, the pet economy looks very different than before COVID-19 and, chances are, this change is going to last a while.

All of this will be compounded by how society has become more domesticated due to lockdowns and physical distancing restrictions. Spending more time at home allows people to think that having a pet is possible.

The pet economy represents tremendous growth potential for the food service industry. Pets are already influencing the market.

With lockdowns in effect in many regions of the country, restaurant operators have pivoted and are offering food to be consumed outside their dining areas. Curb-side pickup spots and drive-throughs are in fashion and incredibly busy. Pets can easily accompany humans on their journeys to pick up a coffee, a meal or a snack. And some are treating the pooch along the way.

At some Tim Hortons locations, unofficial reports suggest the quantity of choice for Timbits is now just one. That one Timbit is often given immediately to a pet riding in the back of the car. Some operators are even unofficially offering dog biscuits or other animal treats.

Before the pandemic, 91 per cent of Canadians considered their pets to be members of their families. After almost 10 months of on-and-off lockdowns, the relationships many Canadians have with their pets may have reached new levels.

The food service industry should take notice. Having a greater number of animals will influence choices pet owners make when picking a restaurant.

Many restaurants still don’t allow pets in dining areas, for obvious reasons. However, the pandemic has made the market consisting of consumers seeking pet-free space much smaller.

Having a menu for pets could also be critical to attracting new consumers in the future. It won’t be for everyone but for outlets with high traffic, accommodating pet owners and their friendly companions can only help.

Once we leave this lockdown-heavy period, restaurant operators will have an opportunity to engage with or commit to a pet-linked new market.

Helping people prepare food for their pets at home could also be of value – meal kits for pets. New pet owners would get proper information about feeding their pets. The food industry could help existing pet owners improve pet diets and perhaps allow pet owners to save money.

During the pandemic, food sector merchants have thought outside the box in serving humans, so there’s certainly room for pets.

As we hear about more recalls affecting pet food, such as the recent massive Pedigree recall, quality and food safety will become critical issues for many pet owners.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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By Sylvain Charlebois

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois conducts research in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety. He has written four books and many peer-reviewed and scientific articles - over 500 during his career. His research has been featured in media outlets that include The Economist, New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Globe & Mail, National Post and Toronto Star.

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